At first glance, it seems hard to find anything positive in the phenomenon of envy. But upon deeper reflection, we can recognize that while envy is often demoralizing, antisocial, and even planet-destroying, there’s also a good kind of envy—one that motivates us to raise our game.
What is it
Bertrand Russell said that envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness, and it's well known as one of the seven deadly sins. But is envy always a bad thing? Is it simply a petty emotion we should try to avoid, or could envy help us understand ourselves more? Is envy rooted in unhealthy comparison with others, or does it come from our own vision of excellence? Could envy even be used to improve ourselves? Josh and Ken consider whether to envy their guest, Sara Protasi from the University of Puget Sound.
Is envy necessarily a vice? On the one hand, it can be viewed as an impetus for self-improvement, but on the other hand, it tends to cultivate bitterness towards those we envy. Josh and Ken begin the show by considering these competing benefits. Ken explains that envy is nothing more than a recipe for a miserable life of comparing yourself with others. Josh pushes back, arguing that people always compare themselves to others and that, if anything, envy can serve as an impetus for self-improvement.
The hosts are joined by Sara Protasi, professor of philosophy at the University of Puget Sound. Sara weighs in by clarifying four types of envy: emulative, inert, aggressive and spiteful envy – each with their own respective qualities. Ken inquires about what distinguishes emulative envy from admiration, to which Sara responds that emulative envy tends to motivate us to change who we are, while admiration is a more passive act. Ken then concludes from this that emulative envy arises from two conditions – first we must envy others and then negatively regard ourselves in order to feel impelled to change. Sara synthesizes this discussion by describing the three-part relation of envy – of the envier, the person who is envied, and the object that the envier feels that they lack – and the distinct relations between these three components that can make envy good or bad.
In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ken, and Sara discuss strategies for cultivating the right kind of envy. Sara emphasizes that the envier should focus on the object they lack rather than the person they envy, since focusing on the object will help encourage the envier to pursue a path of self-improvement. Furthermore, Sara highlights the growth mindset as a powerful heuristic for regulating one’s own envy. People need to be open to discussing their own triumphs and failures, in a way that lowers the stakes when we feel envy.
- Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:20): Holly J. McDede begins with the distinct portrayals of envy one can find in the media, such as the critical Seven Deadly Sins on the History Channel or the many self-help guides that use envy as positive motivation. She ultimately notes that, while we may not have control over when we feel envy, we ought to make sure it calls on us to improve ourselves rather than build indignation against others.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:10): Ian Shoales discusses how envy can lead us to improve ourselves or seek the destruction of others. Ian specifically discusses this difference in the context of fashion and politics, where envy plays a variety of different roles in how agents interact.